The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name: Catullus 31 ¹

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, Simeon Solomon, 1884

Phoning it in this week (hey, moving’s stressful) with something of a previously-on: here’s my first-place entry for the Wellesley English Department translation contest. Sharp-eyed readers will note a continuing dialogue with my first blog post here, but I’ll let the treatment speak for itself…

‘But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.’
Then sighing, said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the love that dare not speak its name.’

Alfred Douglas, “Two Loves” (1892)

He seems unto a god to me— I know, I shouldn’t, but 
he seems beyond the gods,
sitting near (near!) and gazing 
and knowing sweetly

your honey-laughing, and o poor woman I³
it tears the sense away from me
because when I see you (from afar), Lesbia,⁴
nothing beside remains—
<all speech dead & buried.>⁵

See here: my tongue stills, & sweet pale fire
sings below my skin, & my ears— they ring
with selfsame sound, like twin flames
extinguished in the night.

(Lack, O poetess, is your vice:
sweetbitter⁶  pleasure, you know it oftener 
than you ought.
Lack, darling, lack has ruined before you great kings
& cities of the blessed.)
Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
     spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnes
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
     <vocis in ore;>

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
     lumina nocte.

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
     perdidit urbes.

¹ Catullus 31 is a near-exact translation of an earlier Greek lyric by the poetess Sappho: poem 51, or φαινεται μοι. First and foremost of the Latin neoteric poets, Catullus revered Sappho as his primary model in the writing of elegiac love poetry.

² “The love that dare not speak its name” is most famous as a euphemism for homosexuality, cited in court during the trial of Oscar Wilde. Alfred “Bosie” Douglas was one of Wilde’s lovers.

³ Catullus was a male poet; that historical fact is not in question. I have here chosen to render the speaker as female for a number of reasons, but it should be noted in contrast to the Latin text.

⁴ The pseudonym for Catullus’ beloved, Lesbia, is a reference to Sappho’s home on the Greek island of Lesbos— the same attribution which gives us the modern term “lesbian” for a female homosexual.

⁵ This line is sometimes included and sometimes ommitted from the Latin text, due to a presumable manuscript corruption.

⁶ A term borrowed from Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho in If Not, Winter.


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